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  • International Journal of ePortfolio 2015, Volume 5, Number 1, 39-53 http://www.theijep.com ISSN 2157-622X

    Why ePortfolios? Student Perceptions of ePortfolio Use in Continuing Education Learning Environments

    Brad Wuetherick

    Dalhousie University John Dickinson

    University of Saskatchewan

    Over the past decade, there has been an increased exploration of ePortfolios in higher education across disciplines at both the undergraduate and graduate level. ePortfolios have been significantly under-explored, however, in the context of non-traditional continuing education environments within higher education. This paper explores students perceptions of ePortfolios in a non-credit continuing education environment in three programsFine Arts, Writing and Editing, and Residential Interiorsunpacking some of the opportunities, challenges, and barriers associated with ePortfolio use. It concludes that continuing education students, at least in programs where traditional (hard copy) portfolios are commonplace, are positively inclined towards the introduction and use of ePortfolios, though the study still identifies two major concerns that need to be addressedthe level of computer literacy in the student body due to their variability in age and previous educational backgrounds, and the support for and portability of the ePortfolios for students and instructors.

    Why use ePortfolios? What are students

    expectations of ePortfolios? What might be barriers to their effective use? Critical questions like these are important to understand when any technology is introduced to the teaching and learning environment, but it is easy to jump instead right to the question of how we implement said technology. How educators come to understand these questions as they relate to ePortfolios might be even more complex in disciplines where traditional portfolios have been used for many years. And within those disciplines, these questions are arguably even trickier when applied to the continuing education environment within higher education.

    While some work has been done to measure student perspectives on ePortfolio integration (Ritzhaupt, Singh, Seyferth, & Dedrick, 2008), the identification of baseline evaluation data for ePortfolios is needed, particularly within the continuing education learning environment, to allow researchers to review existing ePortfolio initiatives and assess adequately the outcomes of ePortfolio projects. This paper attempts a more systematic exploration of the possible use of ePortfolios in non-credit continuing education programs. In particular, it explores students perceptions of ePortfolios in a non-credit continuing education environment in three programsFine Arts, Writing and Editing, and Residential Interior Decoratingwhere traditional portfolios had been required or recommended parts of the programs. In doing so, this paper unpacks some of the opportunities, challenges, and barriers associated with ePortfolio use in this context.

    Literature Review

    In the last decade, ePortfolios have been receiving increased attention as an effective approach to providing learner-centered assessment for online

    courses (Mason, Pegler, & Weller, 2004) and as a vehicle for formative and summative student assessment (Chatham-Carpenter, Seawel & Raschig, 2010; Klenowski, Askew & Carnell, 2006; Lam & Lee, 2009). The existing literature indicates that portfolios may have several advantages over other forms of assessment. In particular, portfolios possess integrative learning potential: the ability to connect experiences and knowledge gained in the academic context with a variety of other contexts, including the workplace and community (Acosta & Liu, 2006; Light, Sproule, & Lithgow, 2009; Tosh, Wedmuller, Chen, Light, & Haywood, 2006).

    The research on ePortfolios builds on years of research supporting the use of portfolios as both a formative and summative assessment tool in higher education. Shulman (1998) articulated several benefits of portfolios, including the fact that they permit tracking of longer episodes of teaching and learning more effectively than single observations do, as well as encourage important connections between process and product. They can also help institutionalize norms of collaboration, reflection, and discussion and help to shift responsibility for demonstrating learning to the student as a participant rather than observer. Shulman (1998) also articulated several risks that might occur with portfolio use, including: (a) lamination (the portfolio can become a mere exhibition, enabling a student to show off without giving a true representation of the work); (b) heavy lifting (it can be powerful, but considering the amount of time portfolios can take to assemble, the benefit may not be worth the effort); (c) trivialization (it can result in students documenting things that are not worth reflecting upon); (d) perversion (if the assessment of a portfolio is not done well, it can result in a perversion of the assessment process, becoming like a checklist task); and (e) misrepresentation (it might result in an emphasis on

  • Wuetherick and Dickinson Student Perception of ePortfolios in Continuing Education 40

    examples of best work that might not to be an accurate picture of the students overall competence in the field).

    Overviews that have been undertaken of ePortfolio initiatives at universities across North America and Australia demonstrate the breadth and scope of the types of approaches and comprehensive application of ePortfolios for teaching, learning, and professional development (Hallam & Creagh, 2010; Hallam et al., 2008; Lorenzo & Ittelson, 2005). There are numerous ways in which the ePortfolio can support teaching and learning processes, including, but not limited to, assessing student performance, facilitating student reflection, and displaying student achievement (OKeeffe & Donnelly, 2013; Penny Light, Chen, & Ittelson, 2012; Sherman, 2006). There have also been explorations comparing traditional portfolios with ePortfolios (Van Wesel & Prop, 2008).

    Well developed ePortfolios have the potential to enable students to share their projects, documents, and reflections from coursework spanning their entire program, with clear program-related criteria, in a collaborative virtual environment (Bryant & Chittum, 2013; Challis, 2005). Successful ePortfolio projects also integrate self-assessment and peer-assessment, are flexible in the types of content they can include, and act as both a means to demonstrate learning over a span of time and a presentation platform for self-promotion and future employment (Wade, Abrami, & Sclater, 2005). In addition, ePortfolio projects can facilitate self-regulation and critical reflection in students (Carmean & Christie, 2006; Jenson, 2011). In particular, leadership oriented programs and programs that involve a cohort model appear to benefit from the integration of an ePortfolio into program design (Barnett, 1995; Barnett, Basom, Yerkes, & Norris, 2000).

    ePortfolios can also provide students and faculty with an opportunity to perceive learning and teaching as a process of discovery, one that started long before attending the university and will extend long after university. With an ePortfolio, professors and students can see and can share learning progress over the course of their studies. With some ePortfolio approaches and tools, students can also integrate their reflections with learning that extends beyond their studies, and thus provide not only proof of lifelong learning, but also of their life-wide learning (Chen, 2009). Indeed, it has been argued that it is possible to make learning visible through ePortfolios when educators bring together the right pedagogy (one focused on student development, reflection, and a holistic sense of learning) with the right technology (one that allows students to focus on the content rather than the construction of the portfolio; Johnsen, 2012).

    The possible applications for ePortfolios extend beyond the educational sector. In the medical field, for

    example, ePortfolios are being tested at as a means to restructure and reorganize performance assessments and continuing professional development (Dagley & Berrington, 2005; Davis, Myers, & Myers, 2010; Driscoll & Teh, 2001). In the business sector, social ePortfolio software has been suggested as a means to create spaces for intra-organizational collaboration and knowledge transfer (Lesser & Storck, 2001). ePortfolios have also been seen as a contemporary approach to presenting oneself to potential employers (Kersten, 2004; Yu, 2011).

    Although there are potential barriers to implementing ePortfolio projects effectivelysuch as the need for student supportthere is also evidence to suggest that students are able to assist in peer ePortfolio development (Shepherd & Bolliger, 2011). Open source tools are also being explored as a means to develop virtual communities that can generate social capital, generally regarded as potentially a central component of developing successful virtual learning communities (Daniel, Schwier, & McCalla, 2003) with ePortfolio implementations. Similarly, Bolliger and Shepherd (2010) found that ePortfolios developed using free and readily accessible online tools, such as various tools in the Google suite, can successfully create a virtual learning community in which peers provide support for each other via student directed review and discussion posts. In addition, assistance can occur through student directed collaboration and communication (Wang, 2009).

    While the use of ePortfolios is spreading, research on their utility is just beginning to emerge in the literature (Bryant & Chittum, 2013; Challis, 2005; Hallam & Creagh, 2010), particularly within formal and informal continuing education programs. Few studies on ePortfolio use in continuing education have been conducted thus far. Although some authors have indicated that ePortfolios are appropriate for demonstrating the integrative learning of non-traditional students (Acosta & Liu, 2006), little has been written regarding non-traditional student perceptions of using an ePortfolio. While Mason (2006) found that ePortfolios can be successfully implemented for adult students enrolled in an online continuing education masters degree program, the author acknowledged that this particular subset of adult learners is not representative of all adult learners.


    This study was completed at a large, public medical-doctoral research university in Western Canada, with over 37,000 students registered in graduate and undergraduate programs and over 10,000 students in non-credit certificate and general interest programs. It was completed as one part of a multi-faculty study exploring ePortfolio use across the

  • Wuetherick and Dickinson Student Perception of ePortfolios in Continuing Education 41

    institution in both credit and non-credit programs. This paper looks specifically at the perceived benefits of ePortfolio use among adult learners in three non-credit programs in which traditional portfolios had been commonly usedResidential Interiors, Fine Arts, and Writing and Editing programs. These programs, over the year preceding the study, had over 650 students totaling over 2,000 individual course registrations.

    All three programs included in this study had a significant history of using traditional portfolios as part of their program. For example, the Fine Arts and Residential Interiors certificate programs both had incorporated portfolio reviews as a significant part of their program completion, and the ethos of portfolio pedagogythe use of portfolios as a major tool to assess students ongoing developmentwas used at the individual course level across all three programs. Prior to this project, the programs had no previous experience using ePortfolios as a way for students to store, organize, reflect on, and communicate their work to instructors. Many instructors and students, however, had previously developed web-based portfolios to communicate their own work separate from the requirements of the program.

    The introduction of ePortfolios across the programs, as an optional tool to submit digital (image-, video-, audio-, or document-based) content for review, was intended to inform the potential adoption of an ePortfolio tool embedded in the institutional learning management system (LMS). The original purpose of the pilot project was to allow students to choose to either develop an ePortfolio or continue using a traditional portfolio. There was, however, significant resistance among instructors in these programs to participating in the pilot. Instructors expressed concerns about the students highly variable ages, previous education backgrounds, and unknown levels of computer literacy, so this study was developed and completed to explore the interest, perceived usefulness, and readiness of the continuing education students to utilize an ePortfolio tool, prior to pursuing a formal roll out of ePortfolios as a tool within the three programs.

    Method Instrument

    The survey was intended to explore the perceptions of traditional portfolio use among non-credit continuing education students, to assess the students perceptions of the usefulness of ePortfolios in their current program, and to assess the comfort level of students with various computer technologies. The first section of the survey was designed to gather detailed demographics of the continuing education students in the programs, including data not normally gathered in

    the continuing education registration process (e.g., previous educational background and age).

    The second section of the instrument explored the students perceptions of portfolio use in general and the perceived appropriateness and usefulness of ePortfolios in particular. This section was developed following an in-depth analysis of the literature in the field of ePortfiolio use in higher education (Carmean & Christie, 2006; Dagley & Berrington, 2005; Klenowski et al., 2006; Lorenzo & Ittelson, 2005; Ritzhaupt et al., 2008; Van Wesel & Prop, 2008). Finally, the section of the instrument exploring students readiness with various forms of technology built on a previous study by the authors exploring the use of educational technology amongst continuing education students in a different field of study (Wuetherick, Dickinson, & Daniels, 2015; Mason, 2006). A copy of the survey is available in the Appendix. Distribution

    The survey was distributed online and took between 5 and 10 minutes to complete. Students were informed that their email addresses had been obtained from the Faculty of Extension Registration office with permission from the institutional Privacy Office and the Research Ethics Board, and that by completing the survey, they were consenting to be research participants.

    A questionnaire administered online was a desirable way to collect information as comput...


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